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Wil Wheaton: From Geek Blogger to TV Nemesis

on Wed, 01/19/2011 - 00:00

When Wil Wheaton was 14-years-old, he starred in the Academy Award winning motion picture Stand by Me as writer-wannabe Gordie LaChance. The following year he was cast in Star Trek: The Next Generation in the role of Wesley Crusher, a child prodigy and son of Dr. Beverly Crusher. Although the series was syndicated and not aired on network television, it still amassed a large following and was a bona fide hit. Life looked good for the young Wil Wheaton.

Wesley Crusher was not the most popular character on Next Generation, however, and angst is a word that is often associated with teenagers—including the young Wil Wheaton. Instead of enjoying his success, Wheaton longed for a film career and looked at the trappings of Star Trek fame as a life sentence from which he wanted pardoned. “That’s my future, if I don’t get out of Star Trek and do movies,” he told himself while watching the cast of the original series at a convention-style gathering. “There is no way I’m going to spend the rest of my life talking about what I did when I was a kid. I’m going to prove to everyone that I can do more with my life than just be on Star Trek.”

Wil Wheaton subsequently quit Star Trek: The Next Generation, a decision that haunted him for over a decade afterwards. The movie career never materialized, work became scarce and he struggled to pay his bills. The “child actor” became someone who “used to be an actor when he was a kid.” As Wheaton continued his quest to prove he could do something more than “just be on Star Trek,” however, something else occurred—he changed.

John Lennon once sang that “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” and the words proved to be prophetic for Wil Wheaton as well. In the early part of the Twenty First Century, the former Wesley Crusher found himself married with two stepchildren and a new passion in the form of a weblog. The transformation from a late twentysomething actor obsessed with proving himself to a 30-year-old writer content with raising a family is detailed in the book Just a Geek (O’Reilly Media, 2004), a memoir of those times filled with entries from his online blog strung together to complement its narrative. Wheaton has published a handful of other books in the years since and has become one of the most popular and prominent online bloggers with his website.

Part of Wheaton’s success, in addition to being genuinely talented as a writer, is his honesty in regards to discussing his life as well as the deep-felt love for his wife and stepchildren, both of which inevitably seep through the words that he posts. Wesley Crusher may not have been liked by the masses and the demon-possessed young man of later years may even have hated himself for past decisions, but the 30-year-old Wil Wheaton is a different creation all together—an “everyman” looking out for his family, one of the “good guys” who is at peace with his place in the world.

It is somewhat ironic that Wheaton’s re-emergence into the acting world began with characters so dissimilar to the man himself. On the TNT drama Leverage, for instance, Wheaton appeared in multiple episodes as the hacker Colin “Chaos” Mason. While the show centers on a group of former thieves that now help ordinary people who find themselves victims of corporate scheming and wrong doings, Wheaton’s character was initially a member of a cadre of criminals intent on stealing a Van Gogh painting. Chaos even attempted to murder one of the regular cast members as part of a plan to double-cross his partners but is foiled in the end by the Leverage team. Chaos returned the following year and duped his adversaries into inadvertently assisting in his latest scheme—which included masquerading his criminal associates as mall Santas—before having the tables turned on him once again.

Wil Wheaton also appeared in the online comedy The Guild, the highly successful web series created by actress Felicia Day, during the show’s third and fourth seasons as the leader of a group of World of Warcraft-like gamers named Fawkes. When Day’s Knights of Good confront Wheaton’s Axis of Anarchy as the latter cuts line at a local software store, a rivalry erupts between the two groups. Fawkes takes the ensuing competition further than his counterparts, however, as he attempts to literally destroy the online world the Knights of Good have created for themselves. In season four, meanwhile, Fawkes is portrayed as a one-night-stand womanizer who finds pleasure in the misery of his rivals—hardly the “family man” persona of the real Wil Wheaton.

In addition to being “bad guys” in the world of the small screen, the characters of Chaos and Fawkes also share the fact that they are both “geeks” with a proficiency in computers. Leverage associate Alec Hardison, for instance, refers to Chaos as the “Kobayashi Maru” of hacking while Fawkes has led his Axis of Anarchy to the status of “Number One Guild” in the fictitious online game. Wil Wheaton in turn has taken these traits and incorporated them into a fictionalized version of himself on the CBS comedy The Big Bang Theory, where he portrays Wil Wheaton as a rival for main character Sheldon Cooper.

Wheaton appeared in two installments of the highly successful sitcom during the show’s third season. In “The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary,” he enters a Mystic Warlords of Ka’a tournament and faces off against the socially inept yet brilliant scientist. “Growing up I idolized Wil Wheaton,” Sheldon explains during the episode. “I was such a fan that in 1995 I traveled 10 hours by bus to a sci-fi convention in Jackson, Mississippi, wearing my Starfleet Academy cadet uniform in order to meet Wil Wheaton and get him to autograph my mint in-pack Wesley Crusher action figure. In the end my arduous journey, however, was for naught. Although advertised to appear, he did not show up. It was at that moment that I vowed eternal hatred for Wil Wheaton.”

Just when Sheldon has Wheaton on the ropes during the subsequent tournament and is about to go in for the kill, he tells his nemesis the above story. Wil Wheaton, however, has a different memory of the Jackson, Mississippi, convention. “My grandmother had just died and I had to go to her funeral,” he explains to Sheldon. Grandmothers have a special place in the heart of Sheldon Cooper, so instead of defeating Wil Wheaton and achieving the revenge he has long sought, he purposely misplays his winning hand and loses the match. In reality, however, Wheaton’s grandmother is very much alive and the former Wesley Crusher only told Sheldon the story as a “mind game” in order to emerge victorious.

In “The Wheaton Recurrence,” meanwhile, the two face off again, only this time in a bowling match. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Wil Wheaton,” Sheldon remarks upon seeing his nemesis. “The Green Goblin to my Spider-Man. The Pope Paul the Fifth to my Galileo. The Internet Explorer to my Firefox.” While Wheaton was able to manipulate Sheldon during the Mystic Warlords of Ka’a tournament, this time he turns his persuasive powers towards the opponent’s best bowler, Penny. The girl-next-door of The Big Bang Theory was experiencing a bad patch with boyfriend Leonard Hofstadter during the installment, a situation that Wil Wheaton inevitably uses to his advantage.

“You think I would really break up a couple just to win a bowling match?” Wheaton asks Sheldon after Penny indeed ends her relationship with Leonard. When Sheldon says no, Wheaton adds, “Good. Keep thinking that.”

Wil Wheaton has come a long way from the child actor of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The journey known as life has taken him from being haunted by the ghost of “Prove to Everyone that Quitting Star Trek Wasn’t a Mistake” to successful blogger and loving family man. He has even been able to turn his on-and-offline image on its head and portray the polar opposite—not in one or even two small screen series but three—while likewise creating his most indelible character, himself.

Wil Wheaton the man may not be the same person as Wil Wheaton from The Big Bang Theory, but they both have come to enjoy their lives outside the shadows of Star Trek. No longer someone who “used to be an actor when he was a kid,” Wil Wheaton is an actor again. More importantly, however, he is “Just a Geek” like the rest of us.

Anthony Letizia (January 19, 2011)

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